Raising Baby Chicks: Brooder Box Basics

Brooder Box For Baby Chicks

Either you’ve hatched some chicks out in an incubator, you’ve picked up a few chicks locally, or you’ve mail-ordered day old chicks from a hatchery… Now what?

It’s time to build a brooder box!

Actually, in a perfect world you would have the brooder box ready and heating up a day before your chicks arrive. There are a few very basic things you need to know when building a brooder. Some people like to make it very technical and scientific, but I’m gonna give it to you in just a few simple steps- because building a brooder box really doesn’t have to be complicated.

Here’s what you’ll need:

chicks in brooder

The Container

You could go the more expensive route and buy a Heated Poultry Brooder, but you’d save some money by making your own out of whatever you have on hand if you are able to do so. Most people use either a cardboard or wooden box, or a plastic storage tote like I have pictured above. However, almost anything about a foot deep will do. (Side note: In the picture above, the chicks are a little bit too crowded. I actually had more than I expected to hatch out of the incubator, and ended up moving these babies to a larger box. But at least you can get an idea of my setup.)

I’ve seen people make a brooder in a standard bathtub by lining it with plastic, then adding newspapers and pine shavings for bedding. An old baby playpen might also work well. Kiddie pools are another inexpensive option for a homemade brooder. Practically anything with walls around it will do.

Here’s what you need to know before deciding on the right brooder for you…

Size- For the first four weeks, baby chicks need about 1/4 square foot of space per chick. From four to eight weeks, baby chicks need 1/2 square foot of space per chick. I’m not saying you should calculate space needed exactly, but just eyeball it using this recommendation as a general guide, and make sure your chicks aren’t on top of each other in the brooder. If they’re crowded, they can smother each other to death.

Depth– Anything 12″ deep will keep baby chicks from escaping for several weeks without the need for a cover. If you go much less than that, by about three weeks of age the chicks will be able to fly out so you’ll need a cover.

Cover– Some people like to put hardware cloth over the top of their brooder to keep their chicks from flying out, or to keep children, cats, or other animals from bothering the chicks. If you do decide to cover your brooder, just make sure that there is plenty of ventilation going on.

Location- We usually keep our brooder in the house until we can’t stand the smell and the peeping-all-night-long, by which time the chicks are usually a few weeks old and we can move them to a separate pen out in the chicken run. When we’re ready for the chicks to go out, we put a heat lamp in the outdoor brooder and move the babies there. Mainly, we keep the chicks indoors for the first few weeks so we can keep a close eye on them, and for the kids to enjoy watching.

If your brooder will be outdoors from day one, make sure it is in a dry and draft free location. Cool air will chill your baby chicks and will quickly kill them.


Β Bedding

What you put in the bottom of your brooder box is important. Bedding is necessary to keep your chicks from walking in their own filth. It is also important that your chicks are walking on a non-slippery surface. If your chicks slip around, they can develop splayed legs, a crippling debilitation.

Hardware cloth (wire) does not make a good flooring for a brooder. It is hard on baby chicks’ feet, they can get stuck and injured in it, and it also prevents them from building up an immunity to coccidiosis. Wire flooring is not a good option.

There are several bedding materials which are perfectly suitable for baby chicks:

  • a thick layer of newspaper underneath strips of paper towels
  • old rags (avoid terry towels as baby chicks can get their feet stuck in the loops)
  • shredded paper
  • pine shavings (NEVER use cedar, it is toxic to chicks)
  • dried grass clippings (from unsprayed yard)
  • chopped, dry leaves
  • straw
  • peat
  • sand
  • a non-adhesive Non-Slip Shelf Liner

My favorite bedding to use at this point is the shelf liner. It makes a nice, thick padding, and it’s washable which makes it a very inexpensive option if you reuse it over and over. And unlike wood chips and other materials which constantly get into the chicks’ food and water, the shelf liner stays in place and doesn’t make a bigger mess.


Heat Lamp & Thermometer

Baby chicks need heat. They will die without it. In nature, the mother hen uses her body to keep her baby chicks warm during the first few weeks of their lives. You need to replicate this warmth in your brooder.

The Lamp– Like brooders, there are several different options when it comes to your heat source, ranging from expensive infrared heaters to the common household light bulb. Don’t feel obligated to spend a fortune or buy the most “promising” product on the market. Your heat lamp doesn’t have to be anything fancy. We like to use a clamping lamp so we can clip it up and hang it over the brooder. Whatever you use, you do want to make sure that the fixture doesn’t get too hot when kept on constantly. You also want something that can be secured, and won’t fall onto the chicks or into the bedding. You can pick up a heat lamp at a farm supply store, or order one online.

The Bulb– Again, there are choices here. Typically, you would use one of the following types of bulbs…

  • Incandescent bulbs– Otherwise known as regular ol’ household bulbs. This is what we use. Don’t use anything less than a 75 watt bulb to start with though, or you won’t get enough heat.
  • Incandescent floodlight– Designed for outdoor use; also a good option.
  • Halogen bulbs– These last longer than incandescent bulbs, and provide more heat for less energy.
  • Infrared Heat Lamp Bulb (red or white)- More expensive, but they last longer and provide more heat than regular bulbs for less energy. Some say the red glow helps prevent chicks from pecking each other, but I’ve never had a problem with this. A 125-watt bulb or greater should be sufficient.
  • Ceramic bulb (or ceramic infrared heat emitter)- More expensive, but it does not emit light, only heat. It will last much longer than other bulbs, and uses less energy. You’ll need a 100-watt ceramic bulb.

Or… you could spend a little more and buy a heat panel such as the EcoGlow. Heat panels are definitely more efficient than a lamp, and there is no fear of them falling over.

Personally, I’ve found our clamping lamp with a 75 watt regular household bulb to work just fine.

Thermometer- you’ll also need a thermometerin your brooder box to tell you what temperature it is under your heat source. Keep the thermometer directly under the light for best results.

Heat Requirements:

  • Start the brooder at between 90-95*F, and reduce it by about 5*F every week until the brooder is at about 70*. You can reduce the heat by raising the lamp or heat source, or by switching to a lower-watt bulb.
  • If the room they are in is already warm, or if it’s warm outdoors, you won’t need as much heat.
  • Keep a steady temperature day and night.
  • Chicks need a steady heat until they’ve completely feathered out, meaning they’ve lost the baby fluff and their true feathers have grown in.
  • Generally, you can plan on having your chicks under a light for 3-6 weeks, depending on their breed, how many you have, and the weather. (The more chicks you have, the more body heat they generate.)

TIP: Watching your chicks is the best way to know if you need to adjust their heat. If the chicks stay huddled underneath the light, they’re cold and you should either lower the light source or increase the bulb wattage. If the chicks stay as far as they can from the light, it’s too hot. You know your chicks are comfortable when they’re active and spread out evenly around the brooder.

Waterer & Feeder

Before your chicks arrive, you want to be sure you have a proper watering container and feeder ready to go. You’ll also want some Chick Starter Feed to fill your feeder with.

If you’ve mail-ordered chicks, it is recommended that you put a little sugar in the water to give them a boost of energy.

Sugar Water

Mix 1/2 c. table sugar into 1 qt. of water for 1-2 days.

When you fill the chicks’ watering container, use lukewarm water (test on the inside of your wrist, like you would a baby’s bottle). Cold water will chill baby chicks.

The Waterer– you can buy one online or at a farm supply store, or you can make your own. There are plenty of tutorials online for making one out of recycled materials. Watering nipples are also an option.

You basically need something that won’t spill, and that isn’t big enough that the chicks can get in it and drown.

TIP: When your baby chicks arrive, dip each one’s beak into the water to show it where the water is. They don’t have to drink, but at least now they know where they can go to drink when they’re ready.

The Feeder– You can buy one like this, or make something yourself. Whatever you use, it’s best to have a container that won’t spill, and that the chicks can’t walk around and poop in.

*Be sure to keep the food and water containers filled at all times.


Baby Chicks

Your brooder box is ready and your chicks are eagerly awaiting their new home. Make sure that clean bedding is down, the food and water is in place, and the heat lamp has heated the box to 90-95*F before putting the chicks in. If hatching chicks in an incubator, allow them to dry off completely before putting them in the brooder. Mail-ordered or locally purchased baby chicks will be ready to go straight into the brooder box.

*A really good resource you might want to get your hands on is Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks by Gail Damerow. This is by far one of my favorite chick raising books.

As you can see, creating the perfect brooder box can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want it to be. A 100% homemade set up can be just as efficient as anything you could buy from the store. So don’t feel like it’s beyond your budget to raise chicks!

With good care, your baby chicks will thrive in their new home. During these next few weeks, be thinking about where you’ll be moving your babies once they’re old enough to live without the additional heat.

Have you raised baby chicks yet? Got any advice you’d like to add?



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About Kendra 1123 Articles
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.


  1. I am agreed with you.I also think a brooder doesn’t have to be expensive. We use a large wooden box that some equipment was delivered in once. Ducks are very messy with the water. I use a bunny water bottle instead of the poultry dish kind.If you had more insight i will greatly appreciate it. Thanks for the sharing such a useful article.

  2. One can also use “puppy pads” to line the brooder. I have “lost” chicks in the past because they ate the saw dust or “did the splits” on newspaper. A “lifetime supply of pads” at Tractor Supply cost about $20.

    I read somewhere “honey water” for newly arrived chicks rather than refined white sugar. I don’t know if it makes much difference, but my chicks always get honey after their big trip from OH to CA. I want them to know, “This is how we do it in CA!”

    Additional information you might add is to check the chicks for “pasty butt”. I remember discovering this when I found one dead. This is not a fun task, but it doesn’t last for more than a few weeks: examine them and if the exhaust is pasted over, dip the butts into warm water until loose enough to remove the paste. They complain about it loudly; but they will thank you later.

    Very useful and intersting article Kendra! You invested a lot of time writing, photographing and laying it out.

    • Chicks really need to be kept at about 95-100 degrees when they are first born. Then reduce the heat by about 5 degrees a week after that. The light will help do this. The cloth will not. If the chicks are cold they will tend to bunch up under the light. If they are to hot they will stay farthest from the light.

  3. I have a question about chicks and brooders for which I have not been able to find an answer researching on the internet. I have 50 meat chicks which arrived 4 days ago. I am raising them with a friend who used to have chickens a long time ago when he was a kid, but I am a complete newbie.
    We repurposed an old wooden box to use as a brooder. However, we put the box upside down and cut a whole in the top for the heat lamp. The heat lamp hangs from the ceiling. The box only has three sides, so we made a fourth wall, but left a door so they can get in and out of the brooder box. The brooder box is in a 8 by 8 foot covered pen. From day one, we let the chicken enter in and out of the brooder box to run around the pen and they seem to enjoy it. My question is: Is it ok to let them run around the pen? Every brooder box I have seen has the chickens completely enclosed. What are the pros and cons of our setup? So far, the chicks are doing well. We lost one chick the first night, but none since.
    Loved the above article, btw. Thanks for your answers….

    • I’m trying to envision your setup based on your description. It sounds like the chicks would be fine. It’s okay to let chicks run around in a larger area as long as there is a heat lamp they can get underneath if they get chilled. It has been my experience that the chicks will get closer to the heat if they get cold, and will move further from the heat if they’re too hot. So having a larger area for them to run around in should be fine as long as they can freely access the heat lamp. Hope that answers your question. πŸ™‚ Good luck!

  4. I started with six chicks, exactly 48 hours ago and already know the following:
    1. Don’t over think it. The chicks will let you know when they are too hot or too cold.
    2. Chicks are much more civilized than humans. They don’t take affront when a friend pushes them out of the way to get to food/water. They love to see what their friends are up to.
    3. Common advice on the web is to feed and water several times a day. That is simply not needed unless you have LOTS of chicks eating from the same feeder.
    4. Yes, they sleep alot, in broad daylight. And, they wake up in a flash even when you just pass by, since you look like a predator. Walk slowly around a brooder box.
    5. When they are quieter, that does NOT mean they are having problems. Quite the contrary, I noticed that the chicks were LOUD for the first hour or so after getting them from the hatchery, then settled in and now let out much quieter contented cheeps once in awhile.

  5. Love to read all the good info~I am a first-timer~have 2 silver-laced Wyandotte chicks now 4 days old~more on the way~made the brooding pen in the coop itself which turned out to be excellent. Rounded the corners with cardboard and layed down about an inch of pine shavings (floor bottom is aluminum)covered with x-large dog training pads~top part grippy paper and bottom side plastic~diapers. Absolutely wonderful~absorbs any liquid and I just change pads every morning. I also invested in Eco-glow incubator~wonderful also. Took chicks a couple of days to acclimate and I monitored them going underneath as they tried to get in from the sides. Now, they know exactly where to go to to get warm and just use a 25 watt bulb to simulate daylight. Another 250 watt bulb also as a back-up in case temps drop at nite too much. They are healthy and thriving.

  6. Hi, I am getting ready to put my doodles outside, but would like to add that my brooder box is wonderful. It is one of the heavy octagonal cardboard watermelon boxes. The rounded corners keep them from trampling each other. I have very little smell and they are 6-weeks-old and in my house. I am practicing the deep litter method, so everyday I add more pine shaving on top of the old, and it works. This is my first experience with raising chicks and it has been really enjoyable talking and petting them all day long. πŸ™‚

  7. Thanks so much for this valuable information and pics- we are first time
    backyard chicken raisers and our very first peeps are on their way
    right now- waiting for a call in the morning to come pick them up at the
    Post Office so was just double checking my brooder was set and found this site. Definitely

  8. This is my first time getting chickens, and I am so excited!!!
    They are so cute, who wouldn’t want one?
    But they are a lot of work, so I did my homework, naturally πŸ˜‰
    I have read and researched practically anything about chickens. The only thing I am most worried about are diseases they could get.

    • Anonymous- just do your best to keep them clean and well fed, and be careful not to introduce new chickens to the flock without a 2 week quarantine, and you’ll do fine. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, they do get sick. Just do the best you can do and have fun. πŸ™‚

    • We got two chicks for Easter. I have them in the house but I have read this is dangerous to the health of the family. It is cold here now and tho I have grown chickens and could put them outdoors, it is too cold even with a heat lite. Are we in danger of getting sick? I try to keep them as clean as possible but the laundry room is right off the kitchen. Worried I have contaminated the area with salmonela. Also have the bin and clamp lite set up but worry this might get too hot. What do you think. Is checking the area safe enough just to see nothing is getting too hot.

      • I am also a first time chicken owner and I Am in zone 5 in the Great Lakes region. We are raising our chickens indoors as well. All of my research along with information from my farmer mentor said indoors is fine. So when it’s appropriate I will be hardening of my chickens along with my tomato plants. Lol but until them they are in the house!

  9. Hi Kendra, I really enjoyed your article on raising chickens. These are some terrific ideas I can pass along to my friends who raise chickens. Loved reading the article. I will be reading more of your chicken related articles. I am looking forward to following along.

    Charles K.

    Chicken Review

  10. great post! we hatched chicks a few years back and used a big cardboard box, had them in our den. Also incubated quail eggs. That was a lot of fun!

  11. I used a large cardboard box that I got from the produce department (had watermelons displayed in it) for my first brooder, and lined it with a shower curtain. It was free, and there was plenty of room for the 40+ chicks that I ordered. I did splurge on the Eco-Glow brooder this year. I was worried about the danger of fire with the other kind, and I found that the chicks were a lot quieter without a light bulb on all the time.

  12. Howdy, My suggestion is about raising baby ducklings and their water. Ducks are very messy with the water. I use a bunny water bottle instead of the poultry dish kind. I show my ducklings how to use the ball and they figure it out fast. I have raised ducklings for 3 years using these hanging bottles. Life is a lot dryer and cleaner for them and us.

  13. Great post, lots of detail, I agree, a brooder doesn’t have to be expensive. We use a large wooden box that some equipment was delivered in once. We made a mesh lid to keep the dogs out. Can’t buy incandescent light bulbs in Australia anymore (!) so we had to get a ceramic bulb, and also got a cheap temperature controller, which makes life less stressful (don’t need to worry about cooking the chicks!). I have seen really good setups that have the feed and water outside the brooder, with mesh for the chicks to access, but not spill everywhere. Doesn’t work with our wooden box, but would be a good idea, ours gets messy very quickly. Recently I’ve been trying the “deep litter” method too, where you just keep adding wood shavings instead of scooping out the old ones, seems to work ok and is way easier!

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